CHEYENNE, Wyo. — Two Wyoming laws that seek to discourage environmental activists from trespassing in the process of gathering data about wildlife, streams and other natural resources on ranchland could run afoul of free-speech protections, an appeals court ruled Thursday.

The 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that just because somebody is violating the usual laws against trespassing doesn’t mean their free-speech rights aren’t protected. The three-judge panel returned the case to a lower court to decide if the laws indeed violate freedom of speech protection under the First Amendment.

The Wyoming Legislature passed the two similar laws in 2015 and amended them last year to clarify that they apply to trespassing on “private lands” rather than simply “open lands.” One law imposes criminal penalties and the other civil penalties for trespassing specifically for gathering natural-resource data.

Several states have passed similar “ag-gag” laws, some of which seek to discourage activists from documenting animal abuse with undercover videos.

Groups including the Western Watersheds Project, Natural Resource Defense Council and National Press Photographers Association sued over Wyoming’s laws, saying they blocked people from telling government regulators about water pollution and animal mistreatment.

Last year, U.S. District Judge Scott Skavdahl in Casper ruled against the groups, saying there’s no constitutional right to trespass on private land.

Natural Resource Defense Council attorney Michael Wall praised the appeals court ruling that sends the case back to Skavdahl, saying the laws succeeded in keeping environmentalists and their contractors out of the field amid concern they could be prosecuted under the laws for accidentally trespassing.

While the appeals court didn’t rule the laws unconstitutional, the lower court has no room to do anything else, Wall said.

“There’s no plausible way it can do that,” he said. “It’s pretty clearly unconstitutional.”

Wyoming Attorney General Peter Michael is reviewing the ruling and preparing for the next phase in the litigation, said Gov. Matt Mead spokesman David Bush.

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